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5 Tips On How To Help Toddlers Establish a Healthy Relationship With Food by Sarah Remmer

It’s a tricky job, this Mommy thing.

Personally, I am finding meal times particularly tricky with my toddler, who (as cute as he is) is asserting his new found independence in…destructive ways.  Just tonight, I made my gourmet macaroni and cheese (ok, I defrosted it) and placed it on his tray with some of his favourite cut up veggies. Viola. Dinner is served! Instead of gobbling it up, he flung his first bite onto my new sweater with his baby fork and laughed. And then said “aw daw” (all done).

Grrrr.

I am learning first hand how frustrating meal times can be with a toddler, but as defeating as it is, I remind myself everyday about how my reactions now may affect my sons long term eating habits and health. As parents, we help our kids develop the lens from which they view food and eating long term.

Here are some important tips on how to help your kids establish healthy relationships with food from day one: 

1) Don’t use food as a reward or punishment:

If you reward your kids with sweets, this increases their desirability and appeal. Much the same, rewarding your kids with dessert foods because they ate their veggies at dinner is clearly communicating that veggies are to be avoided and desserts are to be desired. This may work VERY well short term (and trust me, I know how tempting it is to use this strategy), but long term, you’re not doing your child any favours. The more frequently parents use food as a reward or punishment, the more likely it is that their children grow to eat for reasons other than physical hunger, such as stress, boredom, anxiety, or happiness.

2) Don’t label foods as Good or Bad:

As soon as you label a food as “bad”, your kids start to feel like they are “bad” because they ate it, and vice versa. Your child should not feel like they are a bad person for eating ice cream, or,  like a good person for eating broccoli. The guilt that your kids feel for having sweets, or “bad” foods throughout their childhood, may translate into over-indulging in adulthood. We instinctually desire those things that we feel deprived of. Although foods vary in nutritional quality, it doesn’t mean that they should be labelled as “good” or “bad”. A balanced diet can include all foods, within reason. Here’s more on labelling foods as “good” or “bad”.

3) Don’t force your children to eat:

This is a biggy. Forcing your kids to eat when they are not hungry (even though it may seem like they SHOULD be hungry) will teach them NOT to trust their true physical hunger cues. Toddlers are intuitive eaters, meaning that they will eat when they are hungry and stop when they are comfortably full. In fact, us adults could learn a thing or two from our little ones when it comes to eating! Whatever they miss out on at breakfast, they will make up for at lunch. Whatever they don’t eat at snack time, they will eat at supper. And whatever they don’t eat one day, they will make up for the next. They truly trust their bodies to be their guide to eating, and we should respect and encourage this. By flinging his mac and cheese at me today, my son was communicating that he just wasn’t hungry at that time. I know though, that at some point in the next 48 hours (or thereabouts), he will likely make up for it. If you are concerned that your child is not growing properly though,  you should seek advice from your doctor who can refer you to a Dietitian.

4) Create a healthy eating environment free of major distractions:

If the TV is on during meal times, the focus is taken away from what your kids (and you) are eating and how much, and is directed towards whatever is on the screen. This can lead to mindless eating (hand to mouth, hand to mouth) and not paying attention to true hunger or fullness, not to mention the enjoyment of food. It also takes away from precious family time, where you can catch up with your family and bond. Meal times are also a great chance for you to model healthy eating habits. Here’s more on creating a healthy eating environment for your baby or toddler.

5) Establish a meal and snack routine:

Toddlers and small children need some structure. Creating a sit-down meal and snack time routine will make your life easier and help your kids to moderate their daily food intake. Because toddlers and young children have small stomachs and big energy requirements, they should be offered food every few hours. This usually means three meals with snacks in between. Try to offer at least 3 different foods at each meal and at least 2 different foods at each snack, so that they can pick and choose what they would like to have and how much they would like to have. When they indicate that they’re all done, remove the food without demanding that they eat more. They shouldn’t be offered food again until the next meal or snack (except water of course). This way, they know that they have another chance to eat in a few hours.

It would be unrealistic to suggest that you FOLLOW these tips 100% of the time. There are going to be times when the TV is on during meal or snack time, or that you give in and bribe your kid with an ice cream cone. I get that. But try to follow them most of the time- your kids will thank you when they’re older!

Sarah Remmer is Canada's go-to expert in child and family nutrition. As a registered dietitian and mom of three, Sarah pairs her professional expertise with her hands-on "in the trenches" experience over on her blog, where she shares nutrition and feeding advice as well as easy, nutritious recipes and videos. You can also follow Sarah on Facebook for daily tips and recipes. 

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